Biggest Needs for Dallas Mavericks During 2014 Offseason
Though they ultimately fell 119-96 in a decisive Game 7 beatdown, the plucky Mavs answered questions about their core's ability to win while posing just as many about where the team goes next.
Dirk Nowitzki improved his Hall of Fame resume this season by passing Jerry West, Reggie Miller, Alex English, Kevin Garnett, John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins and Oscar Robertson on the all-time scoring list, but he also expended more of the limited resources left in his tank.
Nowitzki turns 36 during the offseason, and the win-now Mavs have a lot of work left to construct a title contender in the brutally competitive Western Conference.
Here are the five biggest needs for the Mavs this offseason.
Learn to Play Defense
During the regular season, the Mavs played incredibly poor defense. According to NBA.com, they ranked 22nd in efficiency, worse than lottery teams such as the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic.
As Jean-Jacques Taylor from ESPN Dallas phrased it, "No team that starts Jose Calderon, Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis relies on its defensive prowess." Sad, but true.
But as the Mavs try to outscore all their opponents, they could at least work on improving their team defense from bad to average, and they don't have to acquire Tony Allen in order to do that.
Taylor isolated the better natures of the Dallas defense in relation to the first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, writing: "When the Mavs' rotations are crisp and they pay attention to detail, their defense is good enough to ignite their offense, which is what this is really all about. The Mavs have to play good enough defense to get into transition and attack San Antonio's defense before it can set up."
While fast-break points might come easily against the dregs of the Eastern Conference, Nowitzki isn't grinding out 82 games just to lose in the playoffs. A championship stands as the clear goal while the German legend still has his legs under him, and ranking 22nd in defensive efficiency won't cut it.
When the starting five relies primarily on 35-year-old Shawn Marion (36 on May 7) to be the star defender, it sets itself up for failure. However, the group has shown the capability for playing with discipline and forcing plenty of turnovers even against the league's best team. It's just a shame that Dallas can't play like that with any consistency.
Ellis is crucial as a secondary scorer for Dirk, and Calderon proves very effective on the offensive end, but the backcourt defense needs shoring up. Lance Stephenson and Thabo Sefolosha are both unrestricted free agents, while Avery Bradley is restricted.
Adding any one of those three to the mix would make a world of difference, but so would paying closer attention to the instructions of head coach Rick Carlisle and the assistants.
Learn to Rebound
At just 40.9 boards per game, Dallas finished the season 26th in team rebounding, per NBA.com. Because starting power forward Dirk Nowitzki happens to be one of the greatest scorers of all time, an increased burden on the boards falls to the rest of the frontcourt. Dirk averaged 6.2 boards per game, a respectable total, but decidedly lacking in potency.
No player on the team managed more than seven rebounds per game. That can happen when all three members of your starting frontcourt are at least 32 years old.
Nowitzki can pull down his share of caroms when necessary, but his role in the offense draws him away from the basket and out of position.
Per 36 minutes, Samuel Dalembert actually averaged 12.1 rebounds per game, but the Haitian Sensation barely played 20 minutes a night, via Basketball-Reference.com. As for starting small forward Shawn Marion, he saw his rebounds dip from 7.8 per game to 6.5 despite playing 1.7 more minutes per contest.
Unlike defense, which can be improved at least partially through better effort and attention to coaching schemes, better rebounding will require better rebounders, and two key changes that will address that are the subjects of the next two slides.
This need will come very easily to the Mavs. According to ShamSports.com, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter become free agents this offseason.
Marion turned in an excellent defensive series against San Antonio, and Carter knocked down a truly vintage game-winning three-pointer to gift Dallas a 2-1 series lead. The veterans will be difficult to part with, but Dallas must pursue an upgrade at the 3 and on the bench.
Carter, 37, now has three seasons in Dallas under his belt, and while he tallied 11.9 points in 24.4 minutes per game, his shooting fell to a career-low 40.7 percent. Dallas can do better in terms of a bench scorer, although it will be hard not to bring him back if he's willing to sign a cheap deal.
Marion, 35, has spent five seasons with the Mavs, and if he wants to stay and contribute his defense and veteran savvy, he must prepare to take a massive pay cut off the $9.3 million he earned this season. He should also transition to the bench, where he can rest his aging legs, instead of starting. After posting a player efficiency rating of 18.0 last season (15.0 is average), Marion put up a 13.7 this year, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Possible free-agent forwards to target include Al-Farouq Aminu and Trevor Ariza, but Dallas could also look to bolster the bench options at the 3 and 4. Adding a more effective scorer than Devin Harris to the second unit would also help.
Dirk Nowitzki will be a free agent in 2014 as well, but he told Germany's Sport1 in an interview that he will likely stay put in Dallas, via CBS Sports' Zach Harper:
In the summer I will be free agent and likely extend the contract for two or three years. As long as the body supports me, it is still fun to play basketball. ... Mark [Cuban] has always supported me. Even when things were not going well, he has always told me: 'You are and will remain my franchise player.'
Don't worry, Dirk will stay, but his supporting cast needs an injection of youth to buoy the team in a furious Western Conference.
During the 2013-14 regular season, five of Dallas' six leading scorers were at least 31 years old. Those old guys can't possibly be expected to run with James Harden and Stephen Curry on a nightly basis, especially not in the postseason.
Get More at Center
Samuel Dalembert largely exceeded expectations during his first season with the Mavericks, though the 32-year-old averaged only 20.2 minutes per game in the middle. He tallied 6.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game over 80 contests, but he lacked the gas to play big minutes.
Dallas tried a patchwork rotation at the position with DeJuan Blair and Brandan Wright, and both bench players posted higher PERs than Dalembert, via ESPN. However, neither Blair nor Wright has ever averaged more than 22 minutes per game for a season.
Owner Mark Cuban has pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench, and the team should go out and find a true starting center who can withstand 30 minutes in the middle. Dalembert's contract for next year is not guaranteed, per ShamSports.com.
The replacement doesn't have to be a defensive dynamo in the mold of Tyson Chandler, but the team should avoid the temptation to backslide and sign unrestricted free agent Chris Kaman on the cheap. Spencer Hawes or Marcin Gortat would be a much better option.
Learn the Value of Draft Picks
The Mavericks do not have a first-round draft pick in 2014, and the second-round pick gained from the Boston Celtics comes as little consolation.
While any draft pick in the 20s is a crapshoot, plenty of NBA-caliber youngsters fall to that level. Just look at 2012 draftee Miles Plumlee (No. 26) or 2013 20-something picks Mason Plumlee (No. 22) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (No. 24). Even Mavs reserve Jae Crowder came at No. 34.
The Mavs' 2014 first-rounder took a long journey and eventually ended up in the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Dallas originally traded it to the Los Angeles Lakers to land Lamar Odom. He took umbrage to being included in the vetoed Chris Paul trade, seemed to have had his mojo stolen and played awful ball for Dallas.
After the Mavs got essentially nothing in return for the 2014 first-round draft pick, it made its way from the Lakers to the Houston Rockets in the Derek Fisher trade for Jordan Hill, and Houston turned that pick and Kevin Martin into James Harden from OKC.
That is how valuable draft picks are. Put a first-rounder together with a solid scorer, and you can possibly get a franchise-changing All-Star in return.
Even though the Mavs are a win-now team raging against the twilight of Dirk's career, not having draft picks—and the corresponding trade leverage—is not helpful. They spent that bullet on Odom.
Dallas could take a lesson from in-state rival general manager Daryl Morey in Houston: It must be building for the future, which will be something it needs to frantically start doing in advance of Nowitzki's eventual retirement.